Behind the Book: Nancy Vo Shares Her Artistic Process For “The Outlaw”

Nancy Vo, author and illustrator of The Outlaw, gives us an inside look into her artistic process and her notebook. 


It’s hot and dry as I write this. Hot and dry are not adjectives typically used to describe Vancouver or the Northwest Coast.

Westerns, however, are often set in hot and dry places. When I look back on the notebook that I kept while making, The Outlaw, I can see that I was trying to capture a sense of place for the story.

 

Since The Sisters Brothers inspired my story, I began my research where that story took place – Oregon City in the 1850s. This image of Willamette River, Portland, Oregon helped to anchor the story’s beginning and ending:

 

UO562 3 of 3 Panoramic stumpscape of 1870 Portland Willamette River Oregon USA photos historic
Carleton Watkins copy horizontal bw SW SE

 

These quick sketches were made in the notebook, followed by a rough ink, and a finished spread:

 

 

 

 

 

The finished spread does not have a lot of colour, and this decision to limit the colour palette was decided early – indigo, quinacridone gold, burnt umber. At this point, I was also looking at typeface and fabric patterns. I did not use the typeface shown in the sketchbook but settled on Clarendon for body text.

 

 

For the title, Michael Solomon (Art Director of Groundwood Books) suggested a deboss through letterpress – a fancy way of saying that you can feel the imprint of the type on the paper. I found a local print shop, Black Stone Press, and they found old wood letters that were perfect for the job.

 

 

The original cover on my dummy was rather minimalist and Michael suggested having a person on the cover. I went away and made a couple of versions with the Outlaw on the cover. His advice was spot on and I am much happier with the final cover.

 

Original cover:

 

Final cover:

 

I did a lot of things in this picture book that I wouldn’t recommend as far as process. For example, most people have rough thumbnails before they start work on their dummy. I decided that I wanted to see how the spreads looked all on one page after I had finished the dummy. So, I printed these to have a look. Seeing it like this I’ll say that the scene with villagers could have been varied.

 

 

 

The Outlaw by Nancy Vo:

In this spare and powerful story set in the Old West, people in a small town live in constant worry of another visit from the Outlaw. Then the Outlaw suddenly and mysteriously disappears. Time passes, and one day a stranger rides into town. He takes it upon himself to fix everything that is in disrepair — the clapboard schoolhouse, the train station platform. He even builds a horse trough. But when someone recognizes him as the Outlaw, the crowd turns on him. It takes the courage of a small boy to change the course of events …

The subtle, beautiful mixed-media art with its nineteenth-century textural references perfectly complements this original story from debut author and illustrator Nancy Vo.

In the studio with Matt James

Matt James

How did you first become interested in illustration?

I can’t remember a specific moment when I started thinking about illustration, it was definitely part of my childhood, though, and it probably started with comic books. Someone bought me this little yellow light box that came with sheets of character designs from DC Comics — I would spend hours tracing Wonder Woman and Shazam. That light table made me look more closely: it drew me in — made me look intently at the quality of lines and think about how to make mine look the same way. I also remember that the “Y” in Woodstock offered a cartooning course, which I took. I was in grade four or five, and the guy who taught it was really impressive: he had made a comic strip that he was trying to get syndicated in the newspapers. The amount of work he’d put into it left me awestruck — I think he had three or four months’ worth of daily comic strips all ready to go, hundreds of perfect pages all hand drawn and inked, neatly collected in these beautiful presentation boxes with tissue paper between each of the pages.

studio

Why did you decide to get into picture books as opposed to another art form?

My high school had a really cool art department with printing presses, an enormous process camera, a darkroom, pottery wheels — basically every kind of art equipment you could think of.  When you got to grade eleven, you could drop gym class and take “double art”, spending an entire morning or afternoon trying your hand at printmaking, photography, pottery, etc. A lot of the teachers there had been commercial artists in the 50s and 60s. They sorta guided us towards graphic design and illustration and that was fine by me. There was less fluidity between “fine art” and “commercial art” back then, which was a drag for everyone and made it tricky to figure out how to move forward on a path towards making a living as an artist.

I still do a lot of painting outside of the world of book illustration, and I take a lot of photographs. Picture books have always excited me though, I love puzzling out the pacing and the storytelling and I love being able to slowly expand upon ideas over the course of 32 (or however many) pages. I really love the experience of holding a book in my hands. I like the smell of the ink on the paper and the feel of turning the pages. I guess I really like print in general.

art from The Funeral

What is the first thing you do when you sit down to create something?

I’m not really what you would call a creature of habit — I probably should pay more attention to what works and what doesn’t, but truthfully it’s a different ballgame every time I sit down. It’s more of a feeling out process — just keep drawing, painting, writing or whatever until this feeling takes over. Sometimes it happens when my studio is a crazy mess, other times I feel overwhelmed and need everything to be orderly and neat. I think I thrive on change. Though I will say that I spend an awful lot of time at work. I should probably get up and go for a walk more often!

Matt James painting

You work out of a studio in Parkdale that you share with two other artists. Tell us about the space.

That’s right! Greg Smith, Glen Halsey and I have been here for the past ten years or so.

We love this place. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter, but it is a window into/onto Parkdale with all of its funky Parkdale sights, sounds and smells: it’s a bit of a feast for the senses around here. The studio is pretty scrappy and doesn’t really offer a tonne of space, but it is a bit of a miracle that we have a place where we can create music and art affordably in this city and we thank our lucky stars daily.

Matt James working

Your new book The Funeral is very special and unique. What was your inspiration for the story?

Hmm, that’s kind of tough to pinpoint. Is there one specific inspirational spark? Basically, the story came from life: I followed my kids around at a few funerals. This book was a way for me to sort through my own feelings about the death of some loved ones, initially it was the loss of Uncle Frank, and then later when I was making the final art my dad got terribly sick and passed away. In other ways, it was a documentation; me watching my kids and writing down some of the great things that they say.

This was the first time you wrote and illustrated a book, as opposed to just illustrating, what did you find to be the biggest difference between the two?

This was more like making a story out of words and pictures — working the words and illustrations at the same time — pushing and pulling and kinda molding them into a story.

Just illustrating a book is maybe a bit more cut and dry: a text exists and then pictures are created to complement it.

paints

Your artistic process for the book was quite varied. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Yeah, I did take some things a bit farther than I have in my other books. I had a nice balance happening in my studio where I was working on two very different books more or less at the same time, sometimes leap frogging one another. One book was When the Moon Comes, written by Paul Harbridge, which is set in the depths of winter on a cold moonlit night. That book was really planned out in advance, the pallet is very cold and dark (mostly blue and black) and is straight up painting all the way through. It was a nice contrast to this book, which takes place in springtime with lively pinks and much chlorophyll in the greens. It has painting as well as collage, and little models made out of whatever materials I had laying around (twine, cardboard, masking tape, flowers).  The Funeral was much more of an exploration where you see the results of experimentation right on the page. If it were a record, it would be mostly first takes or demos — I tend to like the look of rawness over refined.

What is one thing you learned while writing and illustrating The Funeral?

I learned a lot of things. I learned how to press flowers in a microwave! I had the idea to use real flowers, and I would (don’t tell anyone) steal little spring flowers off people’s lawns on my walk to work every day and dry them at the studio. I also saved flowers from my dad’s funeral and incorporated them into the artwork.

glasses

Interview by Meaghen Seagrave and Laura Chapnick. Photography by Laura Chapnick.

THE FUNERAL BY MATT JAMES 

 

 

New Publisher Named at Groundwood Books

April 5, 2018 — Sarah MacLachlan, President of House of Anansi Press and Groundwood Books, is pleased to announce that Semareh Al-Hillal has been named Publisher at Groundwood Books. Al-Hillal will take up this position on Monday, May 7, 2018.

Al-Hillal is currently Associate Publisher at Kids Can Press, where she has been for 18 years. She is highly regarded by authors, illustrators, agents and publishing colleagues around the world, and is known for her diplomacy, thoughtfulness and collaborative approach.

“I am honoured to be given the chance to build on the strong foundation laid by founding publisher Patsy Aldana and continue the wonderful work of Sheila Barry and other Groundwood staff past and present. The thought of being able to uphold and further Groundwood’s stellar reputation and prestigious list is very exciting to me,” said Al-Hillal. “I’m looking forward to working with all of the talented creators and staff to create important, magical, diverse books that engage, transport and reflect young readers.”

MacLachlan, who is also Publisher at House of Anansi Press, said about Al-Hillal: “We look forward to having Semareh join the Groundwood team, and I know that Nan Froman, Editorial Director, Michael Solomon, Art Director, Shelley Tanaka, Fiction Editor, Emma Sakamoto, Managing Editor and Giselle Wenban, Editorial Assistant, will flourish under Semareh’s leadership. I couldn’t be more thrilled that Semareh has agreed to join us.”

“Semareh’s extensive experience and expertise in the publishing of children’s literature makes her a fitting replacement for the outstanding leadership of Sheila Barry,” said Scott Griffin, owner and Chairman of the board of House of Anansi Press and Groundwood Books.

For any questions:
Contact: Cindy Ma
416-363-4343 x 250
cma@groundwoodbooks.com

Jessica Scott Kerrin on the inspiration for The Better Tree Fort

Author Jessica Scott Kerrin hugging a tree

I’m often asked about the inspiration for the stories I write. Mostly, I’m inspired by observing and listening to people around me. Russell was inspired by a little boy I once sat across from on a bus in Halifax. He was maybe four years old, and he was with his grandfather. I was with my son, then five years old, and my husband. We were all heading from the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic to the film set in the north end of Halifax for a tour of Elliott’s favorite children’s television show, Theodore Tugboat.

Theodore Tugboat was about various boats that worked in the Big Harbour, a harbor that looked identical to Halifax Harbour, so children in the Maritimes felt especially connected to the characters. The star of the show was Theodore, a good-hearted and hard-working young tugboat. His cast of friends included more seasoned tugboats, a ferry, barges and even a cabin cruiser, who never had to work. Such is life.

Anyway, the show had donated their beautiful models of all the boats to the museum, and as part of the exhibit opening, visitors were ferried from the museum to the water-filled stage set built in the gymnasium of a decommissioned school. The models were much larger than the ones you’d find in a kit to build, and they were a bit comical. For example, Theodore wore a red knit cap on top of his smokestack. His giant eyes, located beneath the cap on the stack, could move and express his feelings.

There we sat in the bus, each of us thrilled at the prospect of meeting Theodore and his friends in real life. Imagine! And across from us sat that little boy and his grandfather. The little boy was happily swinging his legs, which didn’t reach the floor of the bus, and he was cradling something on his lap. From our vantage point, it looked like several pieces of wood crudely fastened together. Seeing us eyeballing the lumpy object, the boy held it up proudly.

“My granddad made me this!”

Confused silence from us.

“It’s Theodore!” he boasted.

The little boy beamed. And when we looked again, sure enough, it was. The grandfather had hand-carved two-by-fours and glued them together to more or less resemble the shape of a tugboat. He had hammered in nails for a crooked railing. The port and starboard lights were made from wooden thread spools that had been painted red and green. He had also drawn the eyes on the smokestack in shaky penmanship, giving the model a permanent look of surprise.

Clearly, woodworking was not his forte. But his love for his grandson was all over that model, and I could tell that the little boy wouldn’t have traded his Theodore for anything in the world, certainly not the Theodore we had purchased for our son from the museum gift store at some expense.

I was worried that my son, a budding scientist who preferred to see the world in black and white, would say something harsh such as, “That doesn’t look anything like Theodore!”

But he didn’t. He kept quiet. Like me, he could see that the model was the result of many hours the two had spent together.

Indeed, everyone agreed: the little boy’s model was perfect.

The seeds for The Better Tree Fort were planted long ago. After much watering and pruning, all I needed to do was substitute that little boy and his grandfather for Russell and his dad. Then I swapped the boat model for a tree fort, which Qin Leng so beautifully drew.

Russell and his dad begin building the tree fort

Russell and his dad build a tree fort

 

“Let’s build a tree fort,” Russell says to his dad when they move into a house with a big maple tree in the backyard. His dad doesn’t know much about building, but he gamely follows Russell’s plan. Several trips to the lumber store later, the tree fort is done. There is no slide, balcony or skylight like Russell imagined, but it is perfect — right up until he notices another tree fort going up three houses over.

When Russell goes over to investigate, he meets Warren, whose bigger tree fort has castle turrets and working lights. Russell is in awe until it dawns on him that it’s not worth worrying about who has the better tree fort when he has a loving dad there to build one with him.

In this subtle, humorous story, Jessica Scott Kerrin explores the idea of keeping up with the Joneses — and what that means when you’re a kid with a tree fort. Qin Leng’s lighthearted watercolor illustrations show the unshakeable bond between a father and son, as well as the delightful details of two tree forts.

 

Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged

VIOLA DESMOND WON'T BE BUDGED“On behalf of the Nova Scotia government, I sincerely apologize to Mrs. Viola Desmond’s family and to all African Nova Scotians for the racial discrimination she was subjected to by the justice system . . . We recognize today that the act for which Viola Desmond was arrested, was an act of courage, not an offence.” — Darrell Dexter, Premier of Nova Scotia, April 15, 2010

In Nova Scotia, in 1946, an usher in a movie theatre told Viola Desmond to move from her main floor seat up to the balcony. She refused to budge. Viola knew she was being asked to move because she was black. After all, she was the only black person downstairs. All the other black people were up in the balcony. In no time at all, the police arrived and took Viola to jail. The next day she was charged and fined, but she vowed to continue her struggle against such unfair rules. She refused to accept that being black meant she couldn’t sit where she wanted.

Viola’s determination gave strength and inspiration to her community at the time. She is an unsung hero of the North American struggle against injustice and racial discrimination whose story deserves to be widely known.

The African Canadian community in Nova Scotia is one of Canada’s oldest and most established black communities. Despite their history and contributions to the province the people in this community have a long experience of racially based injustice.

Like Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks, who many years later, in 1955, refused to give up their bus seats in Alabama, Desmond’s act of refusal awakened people to the unacceptable nature of racism and began and process of bringing an end to racial segregation in Canada.

In 2018, Viola Desmond will appear as the new face of the $10 bill.

Watch the Long Road to Justice – The Viola Desmond Story to learn more about Viola Desmond:

Animated Film Adaptation of Deborah Ellis’s Bestselling The Breadwinner Nominated for an Academy Award for Animated Feature Film

The Breadwinner Groundwood Books

Groundwood Books is proud to announce that the full-length animated adaptation of The Breadwinner has been nominated for an Academy Award® for Animated Feature Film. The film is based on Deborah Ellis’s internationally bestselling novel of the same name.

“We couldn’t be more delighted that this beautiful film, based on Deb Ellis’s story of a young girl who must be brave enough to look after her family, is being given the recognition it deserves by the Academy. It is especially important at this time when stories about girls are finally being celebrated,” said Barbara Howson, Vice President of Sales and Licensing at Groundwood Books. 

The Breadwinner tells the story of eleven-year-old Parvana, who lives in Kabul. Forbidden to earn money as a girl, Parvana must disguise herself as a boy and become the breadwinner for her family. First published in 2000, The Breadwinner is the first book in the four-part award-winning Breadwinner series about loyalty, survival, family and friendship under extraordinary circumstances during the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan. The series has sold over two million copies worldwide and has been published in twenty-five languages. A movie tie-in edition and a graphic-novel adaptation of The Breadwinner are now available in stores. 

“Stories that celebrate the determination and strength of girls, like Parvana in The Breadwinner, are needed now more than ever. We thank the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for shining a light on this timely and important film,” said Andrew Rosen, producer with Aircraft Pictures. 

The Breadwinner film was directed by Nora Twomey of Cartoon Saloon. It was produced by Aircraft Pictures, Cartoon Saloon and Melusine Productions, with producers Tomm Moore and Paul Young of Cartoon Saloon, Anthony Leo and Andrew Rosen of Aircraft Pictures, and Stéphan Roelants of Melusine Productions. The film was executive produced by Jolie Pas Productions.

The Breadwinner has been a labour of love for Aircraft Pictures since we first connected with Deborah Ellis to adapt her inspiring novel for the screen. We’re so grateful to our visionary director Nora Twomey, our co-producing partners, our financiers and the many artists who participated in the film’s creation,” said Anthony Leo, producer with Aircraft Pictures.

The recipients of the 2018 Academy Awards® will be announced on Sunday, March 4, 2018.

Here is a link to the announcement from the Academy Awards® website: https://www.oscars.org/sites/oscars/files/90th_noms_announcement.pdf 

Here is a link to The Breadwinner trailer: http://www.tiff.net/tiff/film.html?v=the-breadwinner

About Deborah Ellis:

Deborah Ellis is an award-winning author and a peace activist. Deborah penned the international bestseller The Breadwinner, as well as many challenging and beautiful works of fiction and non-fiction about children all over the world. Deborah is a passionate advocate for the disenfranchised and has been named to the Order of Ontario, as well as the Order of Canada. She has donated most of her royalty income to worthy causes — Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, Street Kids International, the Children in Crisis Fund of IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) and UNICEF. She has donated almost two million dollars in royalties from her Breadwinner books alone.

About Groundwood Books:

Groundwood Books is an independent children’s publisher based in Toronto. Founded in 1978, the company is now part of House of Anansi Press. Our authors and illustrators are highly acclaimed both in Canada and internationally, and our books are loved by children around the world. We look for books that are unusual; we are not afraid of books that are difficult or potentially controversial; and we are particularly committed to publishing books for and about children whose experiences of the world are under-represented elsewhere.

About Aircraft Pictures:

Aircraft Pictures is an independent scripted-content production company creating quality entertainment for a worldwide audience, ranging from independent feature films to high-end television series. Aircraft has offices in Toronto and Los Angeles.

About Cartoon Saloon:

Cartoon Saloon is a two-time Academy Award® nominee for the 2010 film The Secret of Kells and its 2014 follow-up, Song of the Sea. The studio was formed in 1999 by Paul Young, Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, and is based in Kilkenny, Ireland. 

About Melusine Productions:

Melusine Productions is based in Luxembourg. They specialize in animated films and documentaries. Recent films include the award-winning Song of the Sea and Extraordinary Tales.

Our favorite Books for National Bird Day

Did you know that January 5th is National Bird Day? January 5th marks the end of the annual Christmas Bird Count. The Christmas Bird Count is the world’s longest-running citizen science survey; it’s been going on for more than a hundred years. During the Christmas Bird count, thousands of volunteer birders count native birds and wild bird populations all over the United States. This count forms one of the world’s largest sets of wildlife survey data, and the results are used daily by conservation biologists and naturalists to assess the population trends and distribution of birds.

In honor of National Bird Day, we’ve rounded up five (count ’em!) of our favorite picture books about birds. Is your favorite bird book listed here?

New Releases from Groundwood for January 2018

New year, new books! Or… new… graphic novel!

THE BREADWINNER: A GRAPHIC NOVEL
By Deborah Ellis

Available Now: The Breadwinner: A Graphic Novel by Deborah Ellis

This beautiful graphic-novel adaptation of The Breadwinner animated film tells the story of eleven-year-old Parvana who must disguise herself as a boy to support her family during the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan.

Parvana lives with her family in one room of a bombed-out apartment building in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city. Parvana’s father — a history teacher until his school was bombed and his health destroyed — works from a blanket on the ground in the marketplace, reading letters for people who cannot read or write. One day, he is arrested for having forbidden books, and the family is left without someone who can earn money or even shop for food.

As conditions for the family grow desperate, only one solution emerges. Forbidden to earn money as a girl, Parvana must transform herself into a boy, and become the breadwinner.

Readers will want to linger over this powerful graphic novel with its striking art and inspiring story.

Sheila Barry

Sheila Barry

We have the painful news to share that Groundwood Books Publisher Sheila Barry died last night. Sheila died at Mt Sinai Hospital in Toronto, of complications following her treatment for cancer.

Sheila had her family and her friends close by her through her illness, and close by her at the end. She died surrounded by those dearest to her.

As she did her whole life, Sheila brought happiness and laughter and thoughtfulness and love to all of us here. She was such a valued colleague. And Sheila was a great publisher – influential in ways large and small. The legacy of books she leaves will run far into the future.

We hold Sheila in our minds as the most wonderful example of a truly good person, one who had such a positive effect on so many people. We will miss her terribly.

A memorial service is being planned, and we will share information when we receive it.

Here are some of our favourite blog posts written by Sheila

Danielle Daniel on writing music to go with her books

I never learned to play an instrument when I was younger, besides the flute which I played horribly (sorry, Mom.) After watching my son, Owen, practice the guitar and fill the house with song for several months, I became inspired to pick up an instrument of my own. His dedication and passion to his music motivated me to finally stop talking about someday — I made a commitment. I decided on the ukulele because it’s portable and easy to play. What I also realized is that it’s a perfect companion during the long and dark winter days in Northern Ontario.

After learning a few popular songs like “Over the Rainbow,” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “Ho Hey” by The Lumineers, I was already itching to write music of my own. I knew I wanted to add music to my poetry for children. I thought it would be a great way for the kids to join in while I read my books. It could be an experience rather than a passive activity in listening. This way, we’re all engaged in saying the words aloud. As a former elementary school teacher, I know it’s best to have a few tricks up your sleeve or tucked inside your toolbox.

While I don’t sing the whole book because that would be too long, I do love bringing my words to life with a melody. Once in a Blue Moon is much lighter in mood compared to Sometimes I Feel Like a Fox, which depicts many different emotions and characteristics. Once in a Blue Moon is about finding the magic in nature and appreciating these special moments that are rare. Of course, this song has to be uplifting and filled with glee and celebration.

Because the first line in each stanza is repeated, it does lend itself well towards creating a rhythm. It has been pure joy for me to create these little ditties and sing my words. I hope the kids feel my heart in there too. I want them to know you don’t have to have the best singing voice to share it with others.

My maternal grandfather used to play the banjo and my paternal grandfather played the harmonica (and the spoons.) All of my cousins play an instrument and they’re all musicians in their own fields; from punk to garage to techno. Family gatherings are a true jamboree. Both of my brothers are also musical and self-taught, so now you know why it has always been on my New Year’s resolution list.

Ultimately, I thank my son for showing me how much music can enrich my life. I thank him for teaching me about daily practice and patience. I’m glad I didn’t wait another year to get started. I think I’ll work on snow tunes next. Let it snow. I’m totally ready.


Once in a Blue Moon

by Danielle Daniel

Inspired by the expression “once in a blue moon,” Danielle Daniel has created a book of short poems, each one describing a rare or special experience that turns an ordinary day into a memorable one. She describes the thrill of seeing a double rainbow, the Northern Lights or a shooting star as well as quieter pleasures such as spotting a turtle basking in the sun or a family of ducks waddling across the road.

In simple words and delightful naïve images, Once in a Blue Moon celebrates the magical moments that can be found in the beauty and wonders of nature.

 

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